Let’s face it: Instructional design gets a bad rap. Not many people would put the words “exciting” and “training” together in the same sentence.

To many learners — and even to some learning and development (L&D) professionals — training is simply a requirement for living and working as an adult, much like chores or taxes. This reality is exacerbated by online learning, which makes up the majority of workplace learning in a COVID-19 world. In fact, I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into our shared home office and watched my partner “complete” an eLearning module for work by simply clicking the next button as quickly as he could.

Why does it have to be this way?

Training, even virtual training, doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to require hours of staring at a screen, with information going in one eye and out the other. It can be exciting and engaging — if we pay attention to the right things.

Here are a few ideas you can use to make instructional design more exciting and to engage your learners in new and interesting ways.

Don’t Over-rely on Tried-and-true Solutions

It’s true that learning deliverables must be backed up by learning principles and objectives, but you can be clever on how to gain participant mindshare. Thinking beyond typical learning solutions can help infuse excitement and energy into your next deliverable — as well as attract learners and help them stay engaged. Sometimes, the best way to think outside of the box is to forget the box entirely.

Find inspiration by looking outside of your industry. Visit your local museum (in person or virtually!) to see what tools and technologies they’re leveraging. Read books from innovators who led a movement or disrupted an industry. If you’re a parent, check out what your kids’ teachers are doing — many need to find creative ways to keep young minds focused. Apply design thinking to one aspect of your program. Then, see which ideas fit into your learning objectives. Even if most don’t work, just one new idea will breathe life into your overall solution.

Put Yourself Back in Your Learners’ Shoes

Today’s demand for virtual training makes it easy to focus on how quickly you can deliver new content, rather than how effective the content actually is. Counteract this problem by putting yourself back in your learners’ shoes: What would make this virtual training engaging and interesting to them?

Don’t Assume; Ask

Take the guesswork out of the process, and talk to people to see which training courses they liked and why. Different learners like different things, and you’ll need to design for the majority — but make sure to find opportunities here and there to support the minority as well.

Make Your Learning Interactive

Interactivity — such as polling, quizzing, hand-raising and breakout rooms — is another great way to help turn passive learners into active participants. Here’s a challenge: Can you add a moment of interactivity every seven minutes? Though research around learner attention spans varies, what isn’t contested is that engagement results in better training and increased satisfaction with the overall learning experience.

Interactivity can transform even hours-long sessions from snooze fests into engaging experiences that make the time fly. Think about it: Have you ever heard a learner say, “We interacted too much, so I didn’t learn anything”? Many L&D professionals stick to a best practice of 10 to 15 segments of interactive content — challenge yourself to reduce the time between segments, and see how your learners respond.

A Design Tip

When creating a high-level design for your next virtual training program, color-code all interactions. You can even take it a step further and use one color for each type of interaction, such as polling, quiz questions and so on. After your design is complete, take a look at the number and variety of colors in your document. Did you have a color-coded interaction every seven minutes? Did you end up with too much of one color and not enough of another?

When it comes to keeping your learners’ attention, variety is as important as interactivity. Make sure to include a range of interactions throughout your training to keep your learners participating and engaged.

Meet Your Learners in the Wild

As of 2019, more than 70% of American adults use at least one social media site, according to Pew Research. Of that group, 74% of Facebook users and 63% of Instagram users visit the sites daily. This research suggests that your learners likely spend time on social media every day.

Social platforms are great for encouraging ongoing learning. In fact, in an age where many people consume their news on social media apps, many industry professionals are taking to social media to educate the masses. On the popular app Tik Tok, doctors, lawyers and mental health professionals are creating content that conveys helpful information in digestible, bite-sized videos.

Another popular platform that’s great for ongoing learning? Podcasts. According to Edison Research and Triton Digital, more than one third of Americans (104 million) listen to podcasts monthly. Podcast availability has grown exponentially in the last few years, providing listeners with an enormous collection of binge-worthy audio content. This trend is an opportunity to meet your learners where they already are. Though not everyone prefers to learn via audio content, the increasing popularity of podcasts make them a great channel for engaging and attracting learners in a new way.

In short? Don’t be afraid to try the latest trends to engage your learners. Create a private Facebook group for your learners to share resources and best practices. Make a Tik Tok-style video on tips for success. Record a podcast addressing frequently asked questions about a certain topic. Regardless of the platform you choose, simply delivering training content in a new way can significantly improve learner engagement and encourage ongoing learning.

Let’s Bring Excitement Back to Instructional Design

The takeaways: Think outside of the box (and maybe even throw the box away). Variety and interactivity are the spices of life — and are also effective ways to keep learners’ attentions. Meet your learners where they are, and take advantage of trends to increase ongoing learning opportunities.

If we don’t take the time to refocus our instructional efforts on what will engage and excite our learners, we will lose them — which means we’ll also lose retention, return on investment (ROI) and support from executive teams. By going beyond expectation and trying something new, we can reconnect with our learners and create new content that will have a lasting impact — and make instructional design actually exciting for our learners.